Boost nutrition and enrich taste with vegetable purees

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Don't think of pureed vegetables just as baby food -- after all, mashed potatoes and whipped sweet potatoes are widely popular adult comfort foods, too.

That's the word from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). The reason for making the point is to encourage us to start adding good nutrition along with extra taste to our diets by way of vegetable purees. The message is helped along with some easy recipes to get cooks started.

Cooked vegetables are often served as side dishes, but there are many more ingenious ways to make them part of a meal: as savory low-fat, low-calorie dips and sandwich spreads, or used in a whole range of brightly flavored sauces to complement meats, whole grains or even other vegetables, for example.

"Trying new ways to serve vegetables is a smart health strategy," says Melanie Polk, AICR's director of nutrition education.

Many Americans are missing out on valuable, health-protective vegetables, she adds. "Ideally, we need to eat five to nine servings of a wide variety of vegetables and fruits for optimum health and lowered risk of cancer."

Vegetables are easily pureed in a blender once they have been cooked until tender, Polk says.

The ones that are rich in fiber, like sweet potatoes and carrots, make a rather thick puree that needs to be thinned, usually with a little oil, broth, milk or cream.

How much thinning depends on the end product. A sauce or coulis (an almost-liquid puree used as a flavoring, sauce or garnish) may need more liquid. A dip for chips or raw vegetables, or a sandwich spread, needs very little.

You can use pureed vegetables in ways limited only by your imagination. Beyond sauces, dips, cracker spreads and sandwich fillings, they can function as toppings for pasta or pizza; as entrees and vegetable side dishes; heated with broth or milk to make the base for an "instant" soup.

Add liquids to the vegetables to boost richness and flavor. Broccoli, spinach and turnips profit from adding extra-virgin olive oil, milk or cream.

Substituting evaporated skim milk and defatted dairy cream (nonfat cream) for full-fat dairy products will help keep the fat and calorie count low.

Other vegetables, including sweet potatoes, carrots and beets, have an inherently rich, sweet taste. A light broth or stock, preferably defatted, will give them needed thinning without hiding the vegetables' natural flavors.

Even those who don't yearn for broccoli may enjoy the vegetable in the following combination with cannellini (white kidney) beans. It was originally created as a dip for raw vegetables and chips, but adding just a little olive oil can turn it into a sandwich spread or filling for a tortilla roll-up.

Pureed Broccoli with Roasted Garlic

1 to 4 peeled garlic cloves, or to taste

3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/8 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper, or to taste (optional)

2 1/2 cups broccoli florets

1 cup canned cannellini (white kidney beans), rinsed, drained

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or to taste

1 tablespoon fresh chives, finely minced (or 1 teaspoon dried chives, crushed)

Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste

Hot pepper sauce, to taste (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine garlic, 1 teaspoon oil and crushed red pepper in small foil packet, sealing well. Bake until garlic is tender, about 35 minutes. Cool slightly.

Meanwhile, steam broccoli florets in microwave until very tender, about 2 minutes. Rinse with cold water to stop cooking process. Drain. Transfer to blender or food processor. Add cannellini, lemon juice, chives, garlic mixture and remaining olive oil and puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt, pepper and hot sauce.

For appetizers: serve the puree as a dip for spears or sticks of raw vegetables such as bell pepper, celery and zucchini; or spread it on crackers.

To serve as part of a light meal, spread puree on pita bread or tortillas to make roll-ups. (Slightly more olive oil may be needed to make the puree more spreadable.)

The puree can be stored in a covered container in your refrigerator up to 3 days. Bring the refrigerated puree to room temperature before serving.

Makes 1 1/2 cups puree.

Their natural sweetness and complementary colors make squash and carrots an appealing combination. A variety of spices and flavorings enhances the vegetables' inherent rich taste in the following puree.

Butternut Squash and Carrot Puree

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

3 carrots, peeled, thinly sliced

3 1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup fresh orange juice

1 to 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup, to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander, or to taste

Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste

Heat a large, deep skillet (preferably nonstick) or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil and warm until hot. Add onion and saute until just tender but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add carrots and saute until coated, about 1 minute. Add squash and saute until beginning to soften, about 8 minutes. Pour orange juice over vegetables.

Cover and simmer until vegetables are soft, about 25 minutes. Uncover and simmer until all liquid evaporates, about 5 minutes. Stir in maple syrup. Cool slightly. Working in batches, puree mixture in blender or food processor until smooth. Mix in nutmeg and coriander. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to serving bowl. (Can be made up to 2 days ahead and kept covered and stored in refrigerator. Heat gently in saucepan or microwave to re-warm.)

Makes about 5 cups of pureed vegetable.

The following combination of pureed and sauteed bell peppers makes an interesting melange that can be used in a wide variety of ways: as a side dish, as a topping for other dishes including vegetables, whole grains and pizzas, or as a combination sauce-garnish for an entree.

The use of yellow, red and orange peppers creates a rich, intense color for the puree.

Golden Pepper Combo

2 pounds yellow bell peppers (about 8), stemmed, seeded and quartered

1/2 teaspoon chili powder, or to taste

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 red bell peppers, cut into 1/4-inch-thick strips

2 orange bell peppers, cut into 1/4-inch-thick strips

1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, washed and dried before chopping (optional)

Roast quartered yellow peppers, skin sides down, in preheated broiler (about 2 inches from heat) or in 500 degree oven, placing them skin-side down on rack set on a baking sheet. (Spray rack with cooking oil spray before using. Roasting can also be done on gas burner over open flame, using long-handled tongs.) Roast until tender and skin is wrinkled and darkened or charred.

Transfer peppers to large bowl, cover tightly with foil and let vegetables steam 10 minutes to help loosen skins. Reserve any juice accumulated in bottom of bowl during the steaming. Rub off skins of peppers with hands or a paper towel. (It is not necessary to remove every speck of skin.) Transfer peppers and reserved juice to blender or food processor and puree with chili powder.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add red and orange pepper strips and saute, stirring frequently, until golden brown and tender, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

While pepper strips are sauteing, reheat roasted pepper puree over low heat until hot.

Serve pureed and sauteed pepper strips mixed together as an accompaniment for an entree or as a topping for pizza or focaccia; or over a cooked starchy vegetable like pasta, rice, or couscous.

The peppers can also be used as a topping for steamed vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower or brussels sprouts. The puree can be used as a sauce for meat, fish or poultry entrees, with the pepper strips as garnish.

Makes 1 cup puree and 2 1/2 cups sauteed pepper strips.

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